American Conservatism: Is True Conservatism Progressive?


In the week leading up to this inaugural installment of Relevant Reads (books relevant to the particular new stories of the week), the one news story that loomed in my mind is the House of Representatives’ most recent (not to mention vainest) push to repeal Obamacare. So, in addition to making me roll my eyes and get annoyed (as is customary with me every time I read about the GOP nowadays), the story reminded me of how much I enjoy making fun of conservatives. After dwelling on that for a while, I began to wonder why I enjoy making fun of conservatives. It’s a wonderment inextricably linked to my curiosity about the nature of conservatism, and it’s a curiosity that I don’t think will ever cease in me (so long as I’m amused by the exploits of libertarians and teabaggers).

When I look at the conservative leaders of today, as well as some of my conservative family members and friends, I see frustratingly unshakable ideology so unreasonable and sometimes shocking to me that I always end up laughing at how very easy it is for me to end up associating the word “ideology” with “idiot”, particularly if you’re one of those people who pronounces the former with a short i as opposed to a long i (as I do; and yes, I had a bad habit of laughing at my own jokes … only I’m never really joking when I consider most conservative ideals idiotic). The House conservatives’ latest display of pre-teen-like defiance towards my president (whom I perceive to be a very respectable, very reasonable, and very moderate man), not to mention their ridiculous inability to compromise on … almost anything, really, finally pushed me over the edge into investigating the history of the Republican Party and of American conservatism.

Needless to say, I was utterly surprised by what I learned — not only about the GOP and conservatism, but me and what I believe in.

The two books I would like to feature today are Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, by Geoffrey Kabaservice (Oxford, 2012), and Conservatives Without Conscience by John W. Dean (Viking, 2006).

Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin is a very fair and objective look at the modern GOP. One of the things that stood out to me in the book was that, in the lead up to the 1960 RNC in Chicago, among the four factions within the GOP, the one group of “militant economic, social and cultural right-wingers, anti-government in rhetoric if not always in practice, [and] predominantly from the South and West” (in short, “the group that Americans know as conservatives today”) was apparently the smallest of the four, with the other three ranging from moderate to downright progressive (in the Teddy Roosevelt sense; this right-wing faction, however, apparently “claimed to speak for a majority,” which honestly doesn’t surprise me).

What stood out to me the most in Rule and Ruin is Kabaservice’s citation of former secretary of state and realpolitik proponent Henry Kissinger, who, on the topic of conservatism, remarked, “It seems to me the essence of conservatism is to have change evolve from existing structures and to avoid sudden convulsive disruption.” He continues, “This means that evolution should be gradual, but also that one should not be unbending.”

… I was, like, “Wow. Really?” NOT be unbending? Evolution? CHANGE??

My amazement led me to consult the second title, Conservatives Without Conscience, a scathing critique of today’s conservatism from one conservative to all the rest, a book which amazed me even more. Dean, a former White House council under the Nixon administration and a disgruntled, former Republican, cites his hero, Barry Goldwater, who once “defined conservatism as the belief that ‘the solutions to the problems of today can be found in the proven values of the past”; he’d go on to elaborate, claiming that “in its simplest terms, conservatism is economic, social, and political practices based on the successes of the past.”

Dean later cites conservative writer and policy advocate David Horowitz, who, in his lecture series at the Heritage Foundation, said that “conservatism [is] an attitude about the lessons of the actual past [—] an attitude of caution based on a sense of human limits and what politics [can] accomplish.” The emphasis on “caution” is mine, for it highlights what I and I’m sure many people — or at least most practical people — fairly view as a cornerstone of, well, being practical. As a matter of fact, it’s what Horowitz later claims in writing to be a cornerstone of true conservatism, “that conservative attitudes derive from pragmatic consideration” (again, emphasis mine).

What I learn from these books is that, if being conservative merely consists of approaching life with caution, then being a conservative is not only utterly reasonable but many a time utterly necessary, provided that cautious isn’t synonymous with stubbornly stupid or stupidly stubborn. Furthermore, I can’t help the sense I get from people like Kissinger, Goldwater, Horowitz, Eisenhower, and Dewey that conservatism is inherently progressive. Surely these people are or were smart enough to understand that times and people change if history is any worthy indication; having said that, if conservatism is adherence to the proven values or successes of the past, then true conservatives understand that systems, governments, and laws are subject to change — slow and gradual, albeit certain change, especially if new methods are proven over time.

This seems consistent with the notion that our Constitution is a “living document”: a system of governance that is supposed to be constructively altered — if and most likely when needed.

So ‘Mic’ers, please tell me: